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Too many birds: Jim Nollman – Playing Music with Animals

In Composers, The Nature of Music

It’s quite telling that when Jim Nollman went and recorded himself singing the Scottish folk song ‘Froggy-Went-a-Courting’ surrounded by three-hundred tom turkeys, in an attempt to harmonise with their incessant gobbling, it was a turn towards the conventional for him. Nollman, who grew up on the East Coast, had made his way to the San Francisco Bay Area as a young adult to immerse himself in the city’s infamous improv scene. (In college, tasked with creating the music for a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Nollman used “recordings of people rubbing glass milk bottles together, bending slabs of plate steel, and playing with springs.”) By 1973, when he first made his ‘Thanksgiving recordings’, he was already on his way out, a musician in his mid-twenties “looking for something to hang a career on”.

‘Froggy-Went-a-Courting’ had Nollman playing with an ensemble – for the first time in his professional career. He’d struck gold, never mind the fact that he would, from then on, always be the sole human member in any of his ensembles. By the time he released Playing Music with Animals on Folkways Records in 1983, Nollman had become a regular Sun Ra among the turkeys, wolves, and whales of the Pacific Northwest, successfully playing with animals, communicating with them as equals – for “man is no longer the crown of creation; nature itself is the crown”, says Nollman.

Listening to the ‘interspecies’ improvisations on Playing Music with Animals – some abrasive and vexing, others surprisingly beautiful – you realise Nollman was always the most devout and reverential musician around, whether singing on a farm, playing the vihuela in a wildlife refuge or a waterphone in the open Pacific. The intention was never to intrude, but to highlight how music was “more universally understood than any single human language, and arguably, as profound.” Nollman, writing about ‘Vihuela and Wolf Pack # One’ in the album’s liner notes: “[The wolves] were not given too much improvisatory call and response and would promptly stop singing if we humans got too radical in our own response to them. I felt honoured whenever they would sing in harmony with my own playing.” —Ruben van Dijk

Click here to read complete article and interview with Jim Nollman in Front.


Laurie Anderson
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